Cameron’s eyes are popping. He is gesticulating wildly. And even with the snorkel tube in his mouth, I can make out exactly what he’s saying: Shark.
I pop my head back into the water and see what the fuss is about. Not one but two whitetip reef sharks with their distinctive size and fin are gliding through the water beneath us.
My 14-year-old is beside himself with excitement, my husband is giving a thumbs up about a metre away and the smirk on my face feels pretty big, too.
Before we leave the area known as Devil’s Crown – for its jagged 11-metre-high rocky crater remains – we’ll have seen another three sharks along with stingrays, sea lions and more starfish than we can count.
We’re on the island of Floreana, one of 21 islands that make up the Galapagos Islands. Located about 1,000 kilometres off mainland Ecuador, this is the place where Charles Darwin researched his theory of evolution by natural selection and, since 1978, a designated UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. The destination is a bucket list dream for almost all of our fellow travellers on this Andando Tours cruise itinerary. It’s one of those rare regions where kids fantasies and biology-teacher dreams connect.
Playing the role of educator on board the M/Y Passion – a seven-bedroom yacht – is our naturalist guide Fernando Ortiz, a 30-year veteran of the islands who knows them and their inhabitants like the back of his hand. It takes less than 24 hours for Cameron to become his greatest fan.
I watch him ask Ortiz about the differences between seals and sea lions, the mutations of iguanas and the habits of the giant tortoises. Ortiz patiently answers, adding new facts to ponder as well.
Then, seemingly bubbling over with the newfound information, Cameron spends the rest of the day sharing those facts with his dad and me.
“You know, sharks aren’t as dangerous as they seem,” he tells me over breakfast.
“A gathering of iguanas is called a mess,” he shares over an ice cream cone on Santa Cruz.
And on it goes.
Ortiz says Cameron’s reaction is common for children who aren’t used to getting this close to animals in the wild.
“It has no fences. It has no boundaries,” he says. “The only rules are the ones imposed by the Galapagos National Park so you can really interact with wildlife with respect.”
“Teachers are restricted to four walls and a lab,” he adds. “Over here, the stuff is unfolding in front of your own eyes. You have to be patient and you have to look at things. And sometimes that’s the lesson they learn the most.”
Giant cruise ships are not permitted in the Galapagos; the biggest would carry a maximum of 100 people. Ours takes a maximum of 16 (along with an eight-person crew) and I notice the difference from the big cruise lines I’m used to right away. Instead of buffet options, we dine family-style with the other guests, often al fresco on the ship’s upper deck. Entertainment doesn’t come in the form of lounge acts or musicals, but rather a giant tortoise that seemed to pose for us at the Fausto Llerena rearing centre, and a sea lion that follows our Zodiac to shore. WiFi is non-existent.
There is a TV – but no one on board is keen to turn it on. Instead, we spend our time engaging with each other. The intimate group gels quickly as we work together to figure out the names of the fish we saw or listen to stories that highlight the intriguing mysteries of the islands.
As parents, you do have to be prepared for the questions that might come from some natural encounters. We spy frisky booby birds, frigates in heat and learn about the … er … girth … of a turtle’s manhood.
“It’s not X-rated, it’s nature, “ Ortiz says with a grin that is matched by the flushed cheeks of my son.
But not even that stops Cameron’s questions or fact-sharing.
In fact, it’s only underwater that the talking seems to stop. Then, there’s only his pointing finger, megawatt smile and a gurgling that sounds a lot like “Stingray!!”
The author was a guest of Andando Tours. It did not review or approve this article.
Looking for other family-friendly small ship options?
Uncruise Adventures: Children as young as 8 are welcome (younger ones require special approval) on cruises that offer specific activities for children, ranging from tide pool treasure hunts to snorkelling with sea lions. New departures to Alaska this year (July 5 and August 9) will feature Youth Adventurist and Alaska family travel specialist Erin Kirkland. www.uncruise.com
Lindblad Expeditions: Lindblad Expeditions offers family adventure cruises that specialize in multi-generational experiences. One of their offerings is the National Geographic Global Explorers program that works with National Geographic Education to offer activities that are led by certified field educators. Kids under 18 save US$500 on their passage. https://www.expeditions.com/why-us/family-travel/
Tauck: River cruises are often targeted at older travellers, but Tauck Bridges Family River Cruises do the opposite. With trips that include the Seine, the Danube and the Rhine, families can enjoy the rivers that wind through Europe and the amazing cities that surround them. The family-owned company has been offering family focused river cruises since 2010. www.tauck.com.au
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